2006 Scion tC

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“TC” was Magnum’s amiable war buddy on the ’80s show about a Hawaiian shirt-wearing private eye with a cheesy porno star mustache and a borrowed Ferrari. The Scion tC, on the other hand, is a snarky hatchback coupe from Toyota’s just-launched small car division that offers the same kind of smile at the girls fun — but in a price bracket (just $16,200 for the well-equipped 5-speed version) nearly anyone can afford.

Granted, the Scion’s standard 2.4 liter, 160-hp engine is not quite a Ferrari V-12 — or even BMW eight. But forget about all that bench racing one-upsmanship. The tC has heaps of usable power you can actually take full advantage of — on public roads, from idle to redline scream — without risking your life or your license.

That is a point worth pondering — if you’re sensible.

Really it’s a matter of perspective — and whether having on-paper bragging rights you pay through the nose to get (and which it’s pretty much felonious to unleash) matters more real-world driving fun that doesn’t break the bank or put you at risk of the hoosegow.

160-hp in a featherweight car like the Scion tC is power you can play with on a daily basis at 95 percent of its capability — Big Fun of the slot car variety that in many ways is more enjoyable (at least on public roads) than the overkill of a 400-hp car whose performance envelope you’ll probably never get close to pushing beyond 60 percent of what’s available — and even then only for a brief and nerve-wracking moment. Most of the sports cars in the 300-hp and up range have capabilities so far beyond those of most drivers that you’ll never really get to drive the car close to its full potential — and if you did, you’d be pushing the limits of reasonably safe hi-jinks well into the range of idiot irresponsibility anyhow. Only no-nada teenagers (and those still mentally in their teens) talk seriously about “doing 180” on the crowded highways and secondary roads found in and around most major cities.

For people slogging it out in sclerotic urban/suburban traffic conditions — where it’s hard to get going faster than 80-something mph for more than a short spurt — a highly responsive, darty little runner like the tC is ideal for flicking around — and much more satisfying than a futily snorting 180-mph machine that’s endlessly stuck doing the speed limit behind one breeder-mobile minivan after the next.

Another tC virtue is that it can be driven hard all day and not drain its tank for almost 300 miles. I took my tester down to Roanoke, Va. from Washington, DC — a 280 mile trip — at a steady 75-80-mph and still had a quarter tank at the end of day. And as Elwood Blues so eloquently put it: “It runs good on regular gas” — no high-cost super required.

And with a 0-60 capability of 7.4-7.5 seconds (depending on how good you are with the clutch), the $16k tC stacks up pretty impressively against the pushing $20k (and more) Saturn Ion Red Line, Chevy Cobalt SS, Civic Si and VW Golf VR6.

Beyond the impressive engine and lowball MSRP, the tC also comes fitted out with some race car serious running stock: Z-rated 45-series Bridgestone Potenza ultra-performance tires mounted on 17-inch alloy rims. Yes, it handles well — with the kind of feel at low speed and intuitive sense of where its going when pushed that makes you want to explore the outer boundaries of the car’s grip. And unlike some other small, lightweight compacts (the otherwise wonderful Mini Cooper S comes to mind), the tC’s ride quality does not make you wish for a bottle of Tylenol in the glovebox and a big pillow for your rear after an hour or so behind the wheel. The car also doesn’t wander on the highway — forcing you to keep a death grip on the wheel at all times — a fairly common problem with a lot of ultra-sporty cars shod with no-compromises Z-rated low aspect ratio tires.

Overall, the tC does the best impression of a BMW M3 or Acura Integra GS-R in the sub-18k price range of any car I have driven recently. The car has superb chassis dynamics, response and feel — but with also excellent damping so that road irregularities do not kill your kidneys or cause the CD you’re enjoying to skip a track.

But it’s not all about how it runs. The tC also has the kind of personality that makes a car fun — not just a transportation module.

Check out, for instance, the available LED under dash lighting package (your choice of neon blue or amber) that creates a techno glow in the footwells at night. Or the array of dealer-available customizing parts you can add, such as billet oil cap and carbon fiber engine cover ($120 and $229, respectively), OBX sport pedals ($79) and the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) high-performance exhaust system ($525) that produces a nice mid-range engine drone that peaks into a sport bike shriek as the RPMs climb. Also available is a mega-bass VSE “Bazooko” subwoofer setup that can create aural shock waves capable of taxing the structural integrity of the glass panes of the car sitting next to you at traffic lights.

The overall package is well conceived, too. The hatchback is cavernous and with the rear seats folded flat you’ve got 60 cubic feet of storage capacity — and almost 104 inches of flat floor to load stuff. I fit two large boxes from Home Depot (Hunter ceiling fans), four gallons of paint and assorted odds and ends in there with room to spare. Later, on a second trip, I used the car to haul a mini-fridge. Try and fit one into a Civic. G’head — just be sure to bring a bunch of bungee cords and a lot of luck.

Finally, check the huge, panorama-style electric sunroof — similar to what you’d get in a six-figure Mercedes SL or $65k BMW 645Ci. It’s standard equipment and unprecedented inthis price range. The tC also comes with AC, power windows and locks, ABS, XM-ready 160-watt Pioneer audio system with CD player — no extra charge.

What Toyota did in creating the Scion spin-off was to cut down on the price-padding frou frou (GPS, electronic stability control, etc.) that’s driving up the cost of new cars to ridiculous levels without creating a line of deadening, soul-sapping no-fun road toads appealing only as low-priced econo-commuters. Scions are all much less expensive, for example, than GM’s Saturn small car spin-offs — yet a cut above serviceable but nothing special cheapies from Hyundai, Kia and Suzuki. And they offer “curb appeal” that belies their entry level price point. Both the tC and the paddy-wagon xB exert a gravitational pull on the necks of 20 and 30-something prospects, who almost always turn to look as you drive past.

Best of all, there’s no need to sneak past “the lads” — or win the favor of a rich and secretive patron such as Robin Masters — to get your paws on a set of keys.

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